What sort of research did you undertake when writing “Walled”? Did people really used to do that to cats?
The setting for “Walled” was inspired by a trip I made to Scotland about a year before I wrote the story. I was particularly intrigued by the town of Stromness in the Orkney Islands, its physical beauty as well as its remoteness and the high, rough seas I experienced on the ferry traveling between Scrabster on Scotland’s north shore and the Orkneys. Stromness seemed the kind of place where things both terrible and wondrous could occur.
It was also during that trip that I first heard of the medieval practice of walling up a sacrificial victim at the end of a construction project to ensure good luck for the building and its occupants. Whether or not this was actually practiced in Scotland, I don’t know for sure, but references to the immurement of people and animals appear in folk tales and legends in many parts of Europe.
Dunlop House in Glasgow, where Plush is confined, is, of course, fictitious.
Plush is a complex character and reading the story through her eyes is interesting. She professes to have extraordinary sight, not confined to the “Narrows” like most people, and feels persecuted and misunderstood. Yet these visions resulted in the death of her daughter, which she’s haunted by but never directly confronts. Is the reader to take her as a reliable narrator? Is her confinement just or unjust?
Plush is a spiritually gifted young woman whose mental intelligence falls short of her inner wisdom. I see her as a reliable narrator in the sense that she reports more honestly on her own truth than do most people, and sometimes does so to her detriment. Colleen’s death was the tragic result of the panic Plush experienced at the sight of her beloved grandfather Mooney disappearing; she turned her attention away from her young daughter at a fateful moment.
I wrote the story with the intent that Plush’s confinement is unjust and punitive. She’s neither crazy nor dangerous and is probably saner than most. She’s a mystic—always a dangerous line of work—but she lacks the intellect and education of someone like, say, Meister Eckhart or Teresa of Avila. Her gift is unhoned, her use of it incautious. Rather than being admired or venerated for her visions, she’s viewed as a looney, frightening eccentric who caused the death of her own daughter.
Whether or not Plush’s account is entirely accurate, certainly her gender plays into her circumstances and treatment at the hands of the medical establishment. Could this story have been set in the present to equal effect?
That’s an interesting question, because the story actually is set in the present, in the late 1990s at any rate. And yes, Plush’s gender, as well as her lack of education and her lower socioeconomic status, work against her. Also the fact that she was promiscuous in her youth surely goes against her as well, something that would hardly be the case for a man. Now whether a situation such as Plush finds herself in—essentially sentenced to lifelong confinement—could happen in a modern hospital, I would hope not, but if you take into consideration the confusion that exists even today day on the subject of mental illness, on what does or does not constitute insanity, I’d say the possibility for abuse is surely there.
Do you see the ending of “Walled” as uplifting, in that both Plush and the cat “escape” in a manner of speaking, or as tragic?
Well, since childhood, I’ve always been a big believer that, “there are many fates worse than death . . . etc.” Endless confinement, the suppression of all that one naturally is or has the potential to become—these are horrors far worse than dying. So the ending, by my standards, is intended to be uplifting. Plush is still among the living, but my feeling is that death will come soon—her essence, all that she truly is, has already fled.
I might add that a challenge for me when I sat down to write a story for Twists of the Tale was that when it comes to writing, I really have only one taboo: I will never show cruelty inflicted upon an animal onstage. I remembered the legend about the immurement of the cat and decided I could write about that if the creature were a wraith.
I also think Grace plays a part in this story. Though she wasn’t able to save Colleen, Plush achieves redemption—and ultimately her own freedom—through her compassion for the cat.
What do you like to read? Any thoughts on what goes into a great story?
I read primarily horror and dark fantasy, although at the moment I’m reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. For me a great story is one with multiple levels, where the horror increases exponentially as new facets of the character and his/her true situation is more accurately revealed. A great story leaves me gasping and breathless, wanting to immediately sit down and read it again to savor every nuance and subtlety. I could name dozens, but the one that immediately comes to mind is “Afterlife” by Sarah Langan, Nightmare Magazine October 2012.
What’s up next for you?
At the moment I’m working on a novel, finishing up a couple of short stories, and getting settled into my new home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Coming up, I have a new collection—Fatal Journeys—that will be out in March of next year from the Overlook Connection Press, and I’ve got stories coming out in Axes Of Evil, Miseria’s Chorale, and Of Devils and Deviants.
Spread the word!